What pub quizzes taught me about MCQs

What pub quizzes taught me about MCQs.
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Consider these three questions:

a. What is the highest mountain in Africa?
b. Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in which continent?
c. Where is the only place in Africa can you find snow all year round?

I enjoyed pub quizzes in my 20s. I used to do three a week, but some were more enjoyable than others, and this was usually down to the quality of the questions. Anyone can take a fact like “Kilimanjaro is the highest mountain in Africa” and turn it into question a, above. But there’s no fun in that question for the participants. You know it or you don’t.


Example b at least opens the question to everyone on the team, we’ve all heard of continents, right? And we can use what we know about language to have a stab at the origin of the name. It’s an “all-play” question.

Example quiz question
Example quiz question

Example c however is more fun. Now we have to think laterally: where can we find snow in Africa? Is it cold at the extreme north or south? Is there an island in the Southern Ocean that counts as part of Africa? Oh wait, high altitude. And so we have a fun team discussion about geography, and possibly some debate before arriving at an answer, and hopefully the obligatory “told you so” when the answer is revealed. Pub quiz gold.

Why is (c) more fun? We enjoy low-stakes quizzes. As humans we like to test ourselves, and when there is nothing to be gained except maybe a voucher for a round of drinks, then there’s no pressure. But questions like (a) are dull, they don’t test anything except facts. If you don’t know, you can’t guess. The other two allow us to take part and make an educated guess. They also get us thinking quite hard.


This act of “thinking hard” is exactly what we want to generate in the classroom, see Adam Boxer’s blog on ratio for more on this. Low stakes quizzes are a good way of doing that, and many schools now incorporate daily and weekly recap quizzes at the start of lesson. But there are good questions and bad questions. A question should be sufficiently challenging that it causes meaningful thought (Bjork’s desirable difficulty) but achieveable for most students (Rosenshine’s high success rate).

Before I was a teacher, I was enjoying pub quizzes and occasionally creating them for my friends and family, and discovered these principles through trial and error. (It still irks me when a friend writes a quiz full of type “a” questions, but I bite my tongue). Now we have the research to back up why type “c” questions (my characterisation only) are more enjoyable and more valuable.


If you want to see what I did with all of this research, I wrote the verified GCSE Computer Science content for Quizlet, including 800 multiple choice questions, available for free here. Use these in your classroom. And stop asking “Kurt Cobain was the lead singer of which band?” and start asking “Which seminal Seattle rock band, whose singer tragically died by suicide in 1994, shares its name with the ultimate goal of Buddhist meditation?”


By mraharrisoncs

Freelance consultant, teacher and author, professional development lead for the NCCE, CAS Master Teacher, Computer Science lecturer.

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